My Surreal Encounter With Author Roxane Gay

September 5, 2020. On that day I was formally introduced to the work of author Roxane Gay at Denver’s BookBar.

My visit was part of the “Great Books, Great Minds” global bookstore tour. Seated on the back patio of this iconic bookshop for wine lovers, my friend Khristian and I ordered light food and cocktails. The server then proceeded to ask whether we would be interested in seeing some popular book titles which she would gladly bring to our table. “Surprise us with some of your favorite selections,” I responded.

In short order, she returned to the table with a hardy selection of titles that would make any book lover smile with excitement. In between bites of food, I took inventory of the twelve or so titles that adorned our table while Khristian snapped photos for the tour. 

After perusing through the stacks, there was one book title that stood out— “Bad Feminist”  by Roxane Gay.

I had heard the name before. And the book’s theme certainly seemed interesting, I thought. A white, middle-aged, lesbian, feminist woman with a short build and graying temples is the picture I conjured up in my mind of Gay. 

I decided to purchase the book. But sadly, in true Tsundoku style, I never read it. 

Fast forward to Monday, May 3, 2021. While scrolling through my Scribd app, I noticed that a new book by Roxane Gay entitled “Roxane Gay Writing Into The Wound: Understanding Trauma, Truth, and Language” was being featured. The fact that it was only 39 pages in length was enough for me to immediately download it on my digital reader.

I began reading it right away, a rarity for me given my propensity to allow books to what I call “bake for a bit.” About a quarter of the way through Gay shared an account of a podcast she appeared in years ago with Australian author and media personality Mia Freedman that rocked my boat:

“I visited the Mamamia office to appear on Freedman’s podcast and assumed everything was fine. We had, I thought, a good conversation. We discussed my work, previous and forthcoming. We talked about politics and culture. We finished the interview, and my publicist and I headed to the next stop.”

She continued: 

“The podcast was released a couple of months later, the day before Hunger’s release, in fact. Freedman wrote a description of the show that was one of the most humiliating things I have ever seen in print about myself. She wrote, “A lot of planning has to go into a visit from bestselling author Roxane Gay. Will she fit into the office lift? How many steps will she have to take to get to the interview? Is there a comfortable chair that will accommodate her six-foot-three, ‘super-morbidly obese’ frame? She shared correspondences she had with my publisher, correspondences I had never sanctioned or even known about, that were equally problematic. And she said that discussing my personal business was totally fine because, she believed, it was all part of the story.” 

This excerpt prompted me to immediately do a Google search on “Roxane Gay”. It goes without saying that I was stunned to find this striking picture of her, a beautiful black sista whose stories about her journey with trauma have resonated with so many. 

As she says in this new book which was inspired by a course on writing trauma that she taught at Yale University: 

“We are walking wounds, but I am not sure any of us know quite how to talk about it” 

Here she was offering context around her own experience of being gang-raped at 12 before, as she asserts, writing “around the topic” to protect herself.  It wasn’t until her book “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” that Gay opened up “directly and openly” about her sexual assault and how it changed and haunted her for over thirty years.”

In the end, Gay’s newest work underscores the vulnerabilities that all of us face when revealing our hidden life experiences and authentic selves. It is with this that I am now committed to reading the remainder of Gay’s work before 2021 is complete.  

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Bonus Note: Roxane Gay has a new online book club for anyone who is interested. 

Setting Sail In The Business World: Three Books To Help You Get There

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For many Black Americans, the thought of swimming or boating in an ocean conjures up fear. It has been argued that these trepidations are historic, pointing to slaves who often drowned while being transported by sea to America. 

This genetic trauma some believe has led to Black reluctance in terms of being comfortable around water. By way of example, it has been reported that former pro basketball star, NBA team owner, and billionaire businessman Michael Jordan’s fear of water stems from a tragic incident during his early formative years when a childhood friend of his drowned. 

There are the deep waters of the business world which many Black American’s struggle to conquer due to the racial wealth gap and historic inequities. As reported in Wired Magazine, a 2020 report by Crunchbase showed that Black and Latinx founders raised a paltry $2.3 billion representing just 2.6% of the total $87.3 billion in funding that has gone to all business founders by Q3 2020. 

Enter Sheila Ruffin, a Hampton and Howard Law graduate, who was born near the Chesapeake Bay of Virginia's Eastern Shore, where her grandfather, “Big Rich,” was an avid boater. At age 6, she gained an early introduction to the travel industry and water pursuits from planning family vacations with her mother. 

Over the years Ruffin developed a familiarity with yachting while working on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands on yacht marina construction, impacts from boating pollution, public beach access, and port congestion. She also earned a travel agent certification from the Travel Institute. 

While Tourism Manager for a Caribbean carnival company, Sheila made history by coordinating the first U.S. group to participate in a Cuban carnival — an event featuring 120 represented countries and 90,000 attendees. 

With a law degree from Howard University, Ruffin launched and became “The Boss” of Soca Caribbean Yacht Charters in 2019, a business which has allowed her to, as she puts it, “honor her grandfather while making waves and rocking the boat” in the yacht industry. 

Said Ruffin in a recent interview with Great Books, Great Minds:

“Yachting is an industry that has traditionally overlooked people of color. This was one of my inspirations behind my decision to start a yacht vacation travel agency that primarily targets this demographic.” 

Ruffin admits that being a Black woman makes her an anomaly in a traditionally “white male” dominated industry. Asked about her biggest entrepreneurial lesson in starting and sustaining a business, Ruffin had this to offer: 

“You’ve got to become knowledgeable in your craft through conversations with industry leaders, involvement in associations, and through reading books.”

With respect to the latter, Ruffin says that the following three books were the most valuable in helping her set sail with her business:

Blue Ocean Strategy, Expanded Edition: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne

Says Ruffin: “This book teaches you not only how to differentiate yourself from your competitors but also how to make them irrelevant.” 

You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself  by Harry Beckwith and Christine Clifford Beckwith

Says Ruffin: “You Inc. taught me how to use the authentic ‘me’ as a Black, woman, millennial to sell my vacation services — My personality, cultural background, my desire to want to have fun, my love of travel...anything and everything that’s uniquely me.” 

Purple Cow, New Edition: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin

Say Ruffin: “Purple Cow gave me the playbook on how to distinguish myself from the rest of the industry by daring to be different and creating a unique niche.”  

How To Benefit From Reading

By Emily Black, Senior Contributing Writer

Reading is an enjoyable activity that engages our intellect and transports us to another world. Some people read for pleasure, some read because they are assigned to. Whether you enjoy reading or not, there are some serious benefits to diving into a book. Let’s explore.

The Benefits of Reading

Reading Increases Your Ability to Empathize

Research has shown that reading literary fiction improves theory of mind and increases empathy. This means that you’re better able to understand other's mental states and the complex relationship they share with the world around them. By exploring the lives of the characters between your pages, you gain a heightened ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of those around you.

Reading Expands Your Vocabulary

This is known as “The Matthew Effect”, aka the process of reading frequently and consistently to grow the size of your vocabulary. The size of your vocabulary can influence many important areas of your life, such as test scores, college opportunities, and future job positions.

Reading Keeps Your Brain Young and Healthy

By using MRI scans, researchers have confirmed that reading involves complex brain activity. As your reading ability matures and increases, so does the strength of your brain. Reading any type of content daily keeps your mind engaged as you grow older, thus preventing premature cognitive aging. Research hasn’t proven yet that reading prevents diseases like Alzheimer’s. BUT, studies do show that seniors who read every day maintain and improve their cognitive functioning.

Reading Reduces Stress and is Great for Your Mental Health

Along with yoga, humor, and meditation, reading is one of the most effective ways to unwind and relax. A study has shown that 30 minutes of reading can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and psychological distress. Reading also prepares you for a good night of rest. It is also a much healthier alternative to scrolling on your phone at night. Books also help alleviate depression symptoms. Those who are diagnosed with depression often feel isolated from others. Books, music, and relatable TV show characters can ease that feeling of estrangement. Also, non-fiction and self-help books can teach you strategies to help you cope and manage your symptoms.

Reading Allows You to Travel (From the Comfort of Your Home)

Reading fiction allows you to escape from the world around you and become immersed in the imagined experiences of the characters in your book. You can choose anywhere you’d like to go for your literary escape from reality. That’s such a beautiful thing.

Reading Boosts Creativity

Reading stimulates the right side of our brain. It broadens our imaginations and opens our minds to new perspectives, ideas, and possibilities. Reading comprehension can teach us about ourselves as we relate to the characters or storyline. Ultimately, it results in complete authentic creativity. You can ask many writers and I’m sure they would tell you that reading is part of their creative process. 

A Final Word…

Reading is beneficial to your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It improves brain connectivity, increases comprehension, empowers you to empathize, aids in sleep, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, fights symptoms of depression, and keeps your brain young. 

So, skip binge-watching, pick up a book, and create a happier, healthier, and longer life for yourself.

The “Terra Incognita” Life of Author and Writer Coach Layne Mosler

It was the book Driving Hungry: A Delicious Journey From Buenos Aires To New York To Berlin that led to my encounter with author and kindred spirit Layne Mosler

Little does she know that I’ve lived vicariously through her adventuresome ways since pouring through the chapters of her book and consider her a kindred spirit. 

Layne was raised in Southern California by a family of butchers, bakers, struggling farmers and public library aficionados.  After an overseas trip to the former Soviet Union, she caught a massive case of wanderlust which led her to study cultural anthropology. 

A random encounter with a taxi driver ignited her thirst for travel adventures, leading her to three cities — Buenos Aires, New York, and Berlin. In the former city, the Argentine capital, the cab community became her vehicle for exploring the world of culture, romance, and food. 

In her wanderings she met people from all walks of life, many of whom directed her to an eclectic array of culinary delights. Her blind encounters into the random, paradoxical nature of life fueled her decision to write Driving Hungry, a book that O, The Oprah Magazine, called “sparkling.”

Today, Layne is an author, editor, and writing coach who is passionate about helping people find their way into deeper recesses of their writing practice. In addition to having written for The Guardian, NPR Berlin, and New York magazine, she is the creator of Taxi Gourmet, an award-winning blog that’s generated media coverage in major outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the BBC.

Curious about Layne’s nomadic ways, I inquired about what led her to eventually settle down in Berlin. She had this to say: 

“In the summer of 2010, I visited Berlin for the first time, and the sense of possibility here was electrifying. At that point, I’d spent years living and traveling in different parts of the U.S., Asia, and South America. More than any other place I’d been, Berlin felt like a city that embraced art for art’s sake.” 

Layne says that if you’re an artist in Berlin, people don’t ask whether you can make a living from your art.  Rather, they are inclined to ask about how they can participate in it, or help you with it. At the same time, she says, it’s a city that’s totally aware of the darkness of its past:

“It doesn’t hit you over the head with its history, but if you choose to look, it’s easy to see the reminders of all the terrible and remarkable things that have happened here. I still get goosebumps when I walk across the places where the Wall once stood.”

Having been introduced to Layne by way of her book “Driving Hungry,” I asked her what her journey to becoming an author was like and its significance: 

“I think every writer has a theme they come back to again and again in their writing, an idea they wrestle with over the course of their lives. One of my central themes would be finding grace in uncertainty. Not just learning how to cope with uncertainty, but learning how to revel in its possibilities.” 

Driving Hungry she says was her on-ramp for telling the story of what happened after she started hailing taxis in Buenos Aires and asking drivers to take her to their favorite places to eat. 

“At first, jumping into a random cab and not knowing where I would end up was terrifying to me. But over time, as I took the taxi adventures from Buenos Aires to New York to Berlin, I learned to look for the beauty in all those chance encounters—which led to some extraordinary food and some even more extraordinary people.”

Given the uncertainty facing our world with the cataclysmic impact of the pandemic, Layne offered this assessment of how her work as a freelancer and writer has been impacted along with the lessons she’s learned over the past 12-18 months. 

 “If anything, my writing and writing coaching work has intensified over the past year. (I am aware of how fortunate I am here since I know many people who’ve lost their jobs during the pandemic, including my husband, who drove a taxi in Berlin for 25 years.)

As an introvert, she says she naturally gravitated toward writing and is comfortable spending time by herself. But Layne admits that the pandemic has helped her understand just how much we need relationships—deep relationships. Continuing on this thought: 

“No matter how introverted we are, no matter how self-sufficient we imagine ourselves to be, we need people. We cannot draw solace and pleasure from ourselves alone (or from books alone).” 

Her practice coaching writers, says Layne, is as important to her as the writing she does. She offers this: 

“Going into my clients’ worlds, exploring what’s holding them back creatively, and helping them find the courage to tell their stories is a way for us to connect to something larger, something that goes beyond the immediate challenges we’re facing.” 

In her coaching practice, Layne primarily works with people who are completing the first drafts of their manuscripts. She adds: 

“I love the first draft phase because it’s the most playful part of the process—we have all the creative freedom we want! But the first draft phase is also the most dangerous phase in the life of a book because it’s when most writers give up.” 

She revels in working with writers on two levels:

“Besides helping them clarify their writing goals and come up with a concrete plan for reaching them, we also do a deep dive into their writing practice, their challenges, and their sources of inspiration.” 

She believes that one of the biggest mistakes people make when writing a book is in thinking their writing lives are separate from their lives as a whole noting, “Everything that happens away from the page impacts how we come to the page.”

Another mistake writers often make, she suggests, is assuming they’re not up to the task of writing a book. In other words, they look at the whole rather than the parts—and get overwhelmed by the scope. 

“Books are born out of paragraphs that become pages that become chapters. Writing a book comes down to taking small steps, over and over again. These small steps are different for every writer.” 

Finally, she adds that a lot of writers, including her, aren’t very good at acknowledging their progress while writing a book: 

“We don’t usually recognize when we’ve reached certain milestones in our manuscripts. But if we make a point of celebrating our victories during the writing process, we actually feed our creativity. Why? The more joy we allow ourselves during the process, the more we’ll want to come back to it.”  

In terms of her own writing and reading rituals, she says that writing (with black coffee) is the first thing she does in the morning, with reading being the last thing she does before turning in at night. 

“There’s no writing without reading. I love Elena Ferrante’s female characters, especially the ones in her Neapolitan Quartet. The language and depth of feeling in Garth Greenwell’s stories is breathtaking. His books are among the few I’ve taken the time to reread in the past year. I’m also a big fan of the Berlin-based poet Donna Stonecipher, whose last book is a prose poetry collection called Transaction Histories. Her writing inspires me to pay closer attention to my surroundings.”

A few months before the pandemic, she says that she started a Silent Book Club chapter here in Berlin. 

“We met once a month in a park or a café to read communally. I’m looking forward to restarting our meetings when the time is right and everyone feels safe.”

Of course, I had to ask about her favorite bookstore in Berlin? 

“St. George’s is my favorite English-language bookshop in Berlin. They have both new and used books, and everyone who works there is extremely thoughtful and knowledgeable about what’s on the shelves.”

And in terms of a preference for traditional hardback/paperback, digital books, or audiobooks, she notes: 

“Since I spend most of my days looking at a screen, I favor traditional hardback/paperback books. Though I’m starting to listen to audiobooks while walking. I’m still trying to figure out whether I retain more by listening or by reading what’s on the page.” 

Finally, I wanted the scoop on Layne’s reading list for the remainder of 2021? She closed with this: 

“My goal in 2021 is to improve my storytelling skills, so the Bible and the Hunger Games trilogy are on my list for this year, since they’re both masterpieces of storytelling in their own ways. I also want to read A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, which is basically a master class in the art of the short story. The next time I’m able to go to a museum, I want to have a better understanding of what I’m looking at, so Ways of Seeing by John Berger is also on my list. And I can’t wait to read A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, which is a retelling of the Trojan War from multiple female perspectives.” 

Conversations With A Black Man: What I'm Learning

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By Kris Wood, Guest Contributor

I love podcasts!  This past year I took advantage of the pandemic and listened to many of them, introducing me to inspiring and incredibly informative authors.  

Brene Brown’s podcast interview with Emmanuel Acho on his book “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” was no exception.  I was inspired by their conversation, as well as by Michael Scott, the amazing person behind “Great Books, Great Minds”. So, I took the bold step of exploring more about this uncomfortable topic so that I could learn, share with others in a supportive way, and, hopefully, make a difference.  

What Led Me To Read This Book

The beauty of the book’s title is that it tells you what you are stepping into.  However, the kindness and patience Emmanuel conveys while diving into this multifaceted topic of racism allows the reader to gracefully step into the discomfort. 

I appreciated his common sense explanations and his ability to navigate conversations between white and black culture in a clear and understandable way for readers of any culture.

About The Author

The child of Nigerian immigrant parents, Emmanuel grew up in a mostly white, affluent Dallas, Texas neighborhood where he attended private school.  It wasn’t until he arrived at the University of Texas that he realized the extent of his disconnection between being a black man and an American citizen and how white-washed his childhood had been.

He notes in the book: 

“If I, a first-generation-American black man, could be taught to believe distorted things in such a short time [about black masculinity], how much easier is it for a white person to believe them?”

After years of college football and the NFL where he was surrounded by other blacks, he became adept at moving between white and black cultures.  This experience led him to beckon white people to enter the fray and learn about racism…how it began, how it’s perpetuated, and how each of us can make a change to this ongoing injustice. 

About The Book

The book examines three types of racism: individual, systemic, and internalized. The format starts with a question posed by a white person, with Acho then responding to the question using historical references and current-day examples.

As a part of this discourse, the “Why” questions felt most impactful to me: 

*WHY is our criminal justice system a perpetuation of slavery?

*WHY is saying “I don’t see color” a damaging stance to take when addressing racism?

*WHY is white privilege assumed even if one is not wealthy or highly educated?

What I learned is that the backstory on any topic is crucial to developing an understanding of what’s being debated, particularly in conversations about race, inequality, and discrimination. 

Here’s one example: On the surface, being told you have white privilege may seem absurd if you come from a poverty-stricken white neighborhood where you’ve encountered scarcity, homelessness, or abuse.  But one’s privilege should not be viewed as a lack of hardships and/or success. Instead, it’s the interactions and opportunities available to white people that black’s are not afforded simply because of their skin color

Acho cites an example of walking into a bank, retail store, or supermarket where a black person is often at risk of suspicion, discrimination, and/or attack. These are not typical concerns for a white person in the same situation because society has not been taught that your skin color equates to criminal, animalistic tendencies. Here’s an example of this:

Emmanuel goes on to note that the proverbial deck is stacked against anyone born with black or brown skin whereas white people are most influenced by their environment. 

Learning the WHY behind each of these topics can help dispel myths or incomplete truths and bring such injustice to the forefront. 

Examining Oneself

All it takes to begin, says Acho, is a willingness to look at things that make you uncomfortable. If you find yourself defensive or angry when considering these themes, imagine the angst a person of color feels as they try to navigate discriminatory environments every day. 

I began to ask myself, “how can I be a catalyst for change?”  Because life is not a zero-sum game, where one group has to lose in order for another to win. It is possible for all of us to rise up together. 

A quote often associated with John F Kennedy, “A rising tide raises all boats” is one that speaks to the ability of us to acknowledge and correct disparities tied to the success of us all. 

I am committed to considering what I don’t know rather than expound on what I think I might know. I believe this allows for awareness and growth, a quest that Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man can assist us with.

Surprise Discoveries From The Book

This book helped me recognize some of my own blinders when it comes to the barriers black and people of color face every day. It literally begins when they walk out their front door. It made me realize how privileged I am in my detachment.  

A black colleague of mine shared a recent experience she had while in line at the post office. She was appropriately socially distanced when a white person rudely spoke up and admonished her for not moving along in the line quickly enough. My colleague responded by saying she was giving folks in front of her the space required, but she was caught off guard and felt verbally attacked by the person lashing out.  

The truly sad part is that not one other person in line spoke up to support or defend the appropriateness of the action.  In hearing her story, I had to question myself…had I witnessed such behavior, not knowing anyone in the situation, would I have spoken up??  I would like to think so, but my choice to engage or not engage speaks to the depth of this issue  

Sadly, my colleague did not have a choice, she had to deal with disrespect and aggression directed at her and she had to deal with it in a way that would prevent an escalation of the emotions coming her way.  

My Experiences

In an inclusivity training seminar I attended last year through Queer* the speaker shared an expression, “Death by a thousand paper-cuts” to exemplify how a marginalized person is impacted every day by insensitive comments, rude behaviors, and many other slights and digs that, individually, are not overwhelming.  But by day’s end, these “paper cuts” add up to an ongoing flow of blood, tears, and feelings because they are viewed as “different.” Sadly, this beleaguering will start over again the very next day and every day after that…  

How can I tolerate anyone living this way when respect for each other and our differences is the path to universal healing!  I don’t want a homogenous society that looks, thinks, and believes all of the same things. Not only is this not possible, but insanely BORING!!  It is truly the differences between our experiences, perceptions, and cultures which allow for a richer, more embodied existence for everyone on our planet! 

Says Emmanuel in his book:

“The beautiful thing about the piano is that you got white keys and you got black keys. And the only way to make the most beautiful, magnificent, and poetic noise is with both sets of keys working in tandem. You can’t just play all white keys, because you won’t maximize what the instrument has to offer. You can’t just play all black keys, because you won’t maximize what the instrument has to offer. But integrate the white and black keys together, and that is when the piano makes a joyful noise.” 

What Makes This Book So Valuable

“Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” leads the uninformed into the world of the oppressed.  Because so much of our history completely avoids the truth of a black person’s journey, very little is common knowledge. 

This MUST change.  

If our schools and history books will not fully disclose the truth of our past, then the responsibility falls on us, white people, to educate ourselves.  I do not think my experience of being uninformed is unique.  White people do not readily have this information presented to us as fact.  If you are white and you read this book, I think it will powerfully impact your own journey into this complex issue of racism. 

I am not perfect and may occasionally say or do the wrong thing, but missteps are part of learning. I choose to stretch and move out of my comfort zone where I can grow and I think many other white people seek this as well.   

The Future Generation

I believe change is possible if we face these injustices and become an example for our children. Children often remind us how to co-exist because none of us are born with bias and prejudice.  

A perfect example of this is when my then 12-year-old son and a few of his friends had a night out at the Rec Center.  On the drive, one of the boys noticed a vehicle with a Blue Lives Matter bumper sticker.  He said, 

“Wow, don’t they get it?  Of course, blue lives matter, and all lives matter. But it’s black people who are dying the most just because they are black.  That’s the whole point!”  

Truth from the mouth of babes (or in this case, preteens)…  

My Biggest Takeaway From The Book

Honestly, I was shocked and appalled at the degree to which black people have experienced discrimination.  My ignorance was staggering but so is my intention to step into the “discomfort” as Emmanuel suggests.  

I believe anyone who suggests they aren’t racist is consciously or unconsciously absolving themselves of responsibility in a world where racism is as widespread and insidious as the coronavirus.  It is perpetuated by a lack of information and compassion. This book can help readers take a step in the right direction. 

Says Emmanuel:

"You are responsible for your biases, if for no other reason than that there are ways to make them more conscious. And when an idea is conscious, you can change your mind."

Other Resources To Explore

There is so much to learn and absorb about our treatment of black people and all people of color for that matter - past and present.  I want to know more so I can do more to support my fellow Americans in stepping forward without fear or resistance to the beauty and opportunity of life that should be available to every person. 

Emmanuel Acho hosts a fantastic series that is available on YouTube that speaks to many of the topics he presents in the book.  

Additionally, Emmanuel offers book, film, and music recommendations, and websites where you can research specific topics He also provides a list of reputable charities doing important work and offering volunteer opportunities for those wanting to get involved and make a difference.  

Being the reader that I am, here are a few books that I’m looking forward to reading:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

  • I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

  • One Drop – Yaba Blay

  • Hungry Hearts: Essays on Courage, Desire and Belonging by Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, and others

Finally, Michael Scott (whom I am pictured with below) has a new site called “Black Books, Black Minds” that endeavors to provide a more expansive historical context on Black Americans and their profound contributions to the world. So be sure to check that out.

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